Delivering Global Britain: FCO Skills Contents

Conclusions and recommendations

What is the FCO for? Skills and the purpose of diplomacy

1.We are concerned that a lack of clarity over the FCO’s purpose and its role in government, and the FCO’s continuing failure to prioritise among its objectives, could have detrimental effects on the skills of its staff. A lack of clarity and sense of purpose makes it harder to set priorities for skills development. In the long term, it also threatens the prestige of the FCO as an employer, potentially making it harder to attract and retain highly skilled staff. Continued reference to the concept of Global Britain without a clear sense of what Global Britain is, and why the FCO is uniquely placed to deliver it, is likely to exacerbate these risks. The fragmentation of government responsibilities relating to international affairs compounds the problem. Without a clear sense of what the FCO exists to do, a proper assessment of the skills it needs is impossible. We again urge the Government to set out full and detailed responses to the questions we posed on the meaning and substance of the Global Britain strategy and the FCO’s role in delivering it, first set out in our report on Global Britain and inadequately answered in the Government’s response to that report. (Paragraph 13)

2.The FCO’s Priority Skills Statement and Skills Framework are good first steps towards developing a system that helps ensure the FCO has the full range of skills it needs for modern diplomacy. However, a list of 20 or more separate skills is not a clear guide to where the FCO should concentrate its limited resources. We believe that in order for the FCO’s effort in defining priority skills to be truly meaningful, the FCO must have an accurate and systematic understanding of the skills its staff hold and the areas where there are shortcomings. The challenges currently facing the FCO are significant and, in many ways, unprecedented—which makes it all the more imperative that the FCO knows what skills are already available to it, and where there are gaps. We recommend that a skills audit be carried out as soon as possible once the Atlas Enterprise Resource Planning system is introduced, and by no later than the end of 2019. This audit should be used to identify those priority skills in which it is judged the FCO particularly lacks capacity, and where resources should be concentrated. (Paragraph 17)

3.By the time a skills audit has been carried out, the FCO will be near the end of the original lifespan, set at 2020, of the Priority Skills Statement. The effort expended in developing the original Priority Skills Statement should not be a one-off. We recommend that by 2020 the FCO should be ready to produce a Priority Skills Statement for 2025 (or an equivalent, forward-looking, FCO-specific document under the technical element of the Civil Service Success Profile). Internal consultations to identify new skills that might need to be included in this statement, drawing on the experience of the Future FCO report, should begin now. The FCO should also consult with external stakeholders and learn from best practices adopted by other diplomatic services. (Paragraph 18)

Career paths: is the FCO an employer that values skills?

4.The FCO’s evidence to this inquiry makes clear that low pay is affecting staff morale and retention, and that similarly qualified staff are offered considerably higher pay at other government departments. This is alarming. The FCO’s future as a home for the best that the Civil Service has to offer is at stake. We agree with the FCO that this situation is unsustainable if we are to retain the quality of people needed to deliver effective foreign policy, and while we welcome the Treasury’s decision to approve the FCO’s pay flexibility case, pay at the FCO is a long-term problem with deep roots. The FCO cannot expect indefinitely to attract Premiership talent if it consistently offers Championship salaries. This is especially the case at a time when the FCO’s fundamental purpose is under question. We urge the Government to look at further options for improving the pay offer at the FCO, both for centrally contracted staff and for local hires abroad. In addition, a specific exercise led by external consultants should compare the reward package of officials doing similar jobs at the FCO and DFID—and the Government should commit to keeping these closely in line in future. (Paragraph 21)

5.We welcome the efforts the FCO has made to emphasise skills in performance measurement and promotion. However, the FCO does not yet appear to have the ability to track accurately the progress that its staff are making against the targets set out for skills development, which increases the risk that priorities will be established but not enforced. We are also concerned that the FCO is yet to define what an expert looks like in the majority of its priority skills. We recommend that the FCO measure the proportion of its staff reaching the expected attainment in Foundation-and Practitioner-level skills as soon as is practical once the Atlas system is in place, and that it set out a plan for ensuring that staff not yet at the expected level reach it promptly. We call on the FCO to set a specific time scale for this work, and to commit to reporting the figures to us once they are available. The FCO should also produce a definition of expert-level attainment in core diplomatic skills, and should add this to the criteria used by the Senior Appointments Board. (Paragraph 25)

6.Although the announcement of external appointments to Ambassadorial positions gained considerable media attention, we agree with the Foreign Secretary that it does not represent a significant change in FCO recruitment policy. If the FCO is serious about opening itself up to external talent, reforms will have to go much further—and there is no obvious reason why this should be limited to heads of mission. We are concerned that too few posts are to be subjected to open competition. Further, in sticking rigidly to a recruitment procedure which values traditional public-sector skills, and with which existing FCO staff are familiar, we fear that external candidates will face a formidably high barrier to appointment. (Paragraph 27)

7.The FCO needs to be more ambitious in seeking to recruit high-quality external candidates to complement its undoubtedly high-calibre existing workforce. To that end, we recommend that it produces plans to extend open recruitment to a wider tranche of roles, including those at deputy head of mission level, and that it reports those plans to us within six months. Further, it should require external, expert headhunters to review its plans for the three open competitions to be held next year, with a view to making them as accessible as possible to external candidates. Finally, a full review of those competitions should be conducted after they are completed, looking at the number and quality of external candidates; that review should seek the feedback of external candidates to identify any challenges and barriers encountered in the recruitment process. We will expect to receive a full copy of that review. The FCO has made a tentative step in a positive direction but it needs to go further faster if it is to have the fullest range of talent at its disposal. (Paragraph 28)

8.We welcome the steps that the FCO has taken to reduce the impact of churn, including increasing some tour lengths. However, it is important that a systematic effort is made to ensure that expertise, once acquired, is not wasted, and that as far as possible there is continuity in the expertise the FCO can apply to a subject, and the networks that its staff have built up. The FCO should now act on the recommendation that a formal two-week training margin for all staff entering new roles be introduced, and commit to do so within the next year. The FCO should also assess whether the handover procedures it describes as “customary practice” adequately transfer the expertise that outgoing staff have built up, and should issue formal guidance on handover practices incorporating any changes deemed necessary following this assessment. (Paragraph 31)

Skills for Global Britain

9.We note that the Diplomatic Academy’s target for training 240 cross-government staff to expert level in trade policy and negotiations by March 2019 is a challenging one, and based on progress so far, it seems probable that the target will not be met in time. In its response to this report, the FCO should tell us whether it expects that target to be met, and if not, what impact it believes this will have on cross-government capability in trade policy and negotiations after March 2019, and how it intends to fill the gap. (Paragraph 35)

10.We continue to believe, as we concluded in our previous report, that the FCO faces “a considerable challenge to ensure that its European network can cope with the increased demands of maintaining effective diplomatic relationships with the EU27, without the level of automatic and regular access to the EU27 governments that came with EU membership”. In its response to this report, the FCO should set out the assessment it has made of the new skills relating to European diplomacy its staff will need after the UK leaves the EU, its plan for ensuring that its staff have those skills, and the changes it has made to the process for developing cross-FCO Europe expertise since the referendum. (Paragraph 38)

11.As March 2019 approaches, the urgency of having a clear and detailed plan for the future of the UK’s Representation to the EU (UKRep) is increasing sharply. It is essential that UKRep is ready on 30 March 2019 to manage the demands of the proposed implementation period, when the UK will remain bound by EU law but will no longer be present in the rooms where decisions are made. In its response to this report, the Government should set out the results of its consultations on the future of UKRep, and its plan for UKRep’s future role, shape and functions, particularly in the transition period when our ability to influence decisions will have a direct impact on UK national interests. The FCO should also set out a precise timetable for implementing this plan. We reiterate our recommendation that the Government should consider creating a dedicated Minister for Europe, who would focus solely on the UK’s relationship with the EU and its Member States, and would be resident in Brussels, with lead responsibility for the FCO’s European network. (Paragraph 39)

12.Languages are the foundation of diplomacy, and failure to excel in foreign languages undermines whatever other skills our diplomats may develop. We welcome the improvement made in the past few years in foreign language skills at the FCO, but there is a long way to go. We are encouraged by the FCO’s relatively high attainment in Mandarin, and concerned by the lower figures for Russian and Arabic. The FCO cannot allow under-resourcing to mean that operational demands result in officers being sent on postings before they have met the required language proficiency. The FCO’s goal of having 80% of officers in speaker slots at their target-level language attainment (TLA) by 2020, while a significant improvement over past performance, is still conservative in absolute terms. Yet, based on the current track record, even this goal will be challenging to reach. The Foreign Secretary’s commitment to double the number of FCO language speakers and increase the number of languages taught is laudable, but it is clear to us that this will require considerable additional resources, and sustained, senior-level attention to achieve. (Paragraph 42)

13.The FCO must, as a matter of urgency, determine and report to us clear and realistic figures for the additional budgetary resources required to deliver on the Foreign Secretary’s goals for expanding the FCO’s languages capacity. In its response to this report, the Government should also outline any resourcing or operational issues it believes could prevent the 80% TLA goal from being reached by 2020 or which could hinder improvement thereafter, and provide details of its plan for addressing those issues. The FCO’s goals should not be achieved by simply lowering the standards of language proficiency that officers are expected to reach. We expect the Permanent Under-Secretary regularly to report progress to us on language attainment, against a consistent set of metrics, in the quarterly operational update he provides. (Paragraph 43)

14.The challenge to the UK from Russia has increased yet further in just 18 months since our predecessor Committee’s report. We welcome the priority the FCO has placed on dealing with this challenge, and the FCO’s diplomatic success in responding to the Salisbury attack. However, we note that the EECADRE, established in 2015, is a recent development, and we do not have sufficient evidence from this inquiry to judge whether its achievements and ambition match the scale of the challenge at hand. We welcome the progress made in Russian language skills since 2016, but note that overall attainment remains troublingly low. We also note that a potential side-effect of Russia’s expulsion of UK diplomats is to make it more difficult for FCO officers to improve their first-hand understanding of Russia. In its response to this report, the FCO should set out its plans for mitigating the effects of Russia’s diplomatic expulsions on the FCO’s Russian expertise and language skills. The FCO should also confirm that it expects Russian TLA to reach 80% by 2020, in line with the target set for overall attainment. (Paragraph 45)

15.We plan to return to the question of the FCO’s expertise in this area as part of our separate inquiry into China and the international rules-based system. However, in advance of the completion of that work it is already evident to us that the geopolitical importance of China means it needs to be consistently highlighted as a priority for the FCO, and we are surprised, given the Foreign Secretary’s personal recognition of its importance, that it is not specifically named as such in the FCO’s objectives. Generating and maintaining deep expertise on China, its foreign-policy approach and its role in the world will be increasingly important for the FCO in the years ahead, across a wide range of policy areas. In its response, the FCO needs convincingly to counter the impression given in its objectives and priority outcomes that the UK’s approach to China is not being treated with the urgency and focus it merits. The FCO should commit to specifically highlighting the need to deal with the rise of China in its objectives and priority outcomes for 2019–20. (Paragraph 47)

16.We welcome the FCO’s recognition that digital communication, including social media, is now a core aspect of diplomacy. The appointment of a head of the Diplomatic Academy with a strong personal track record in digital diplomacy is also a valuable implicit signal from the FCO of the importance of this skill. We encourage FCO ministers and senior officials to set a tone for digital diplomacy—leading by the example of their own social media activity—that encourages calculated risk taking and promotes creativity and innovation. (Paragraph 50)

Published: 28 November 2018